Spurs, Rockets clash in battle for playoff position
Given its franchise history of impeccability, San Antonio has provided fans with every reason to believe in its sudden invincibility, with performances of late elevating the Spurs' status from postseason hopefuls to a team so dangerous almost no opponent would welcome a first-round playoff matchup.
Even with its 110-105 home loss on Wednesday to the Miami Heat, a setback that snapped the Spurs' nine-game winning streak, San Antonio resembles an altogether different squad from earlier this season. Now, as they look ahead to a road clash on Friday with the Houston Rockets, the Spurs are climbing the Western Conference standings, and a home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs isn't inconceivable.
"I think our mindset and what we're trying to do is in the right place," Spurs guard Patty Mills said. "And then we've been focusing on ourselves no matter who we've played against. So, we feel the mindset is on us, and our development and how we're growing, and the things that we need to work on."
What the Spurs invested in was a recommitment on the defensive end. The results have been indisputable, with San Antonio producing a 104.1 defensive rating over the past 10 games, a mark that left them fourth in the league during that stretch entering play on Thursday.
"Defense -- and understanding that's what's going to take us to get to the next level and beyond," Mills said in explaining the Spurs' recent resurgence. "The last couple of weeks, we've been very active. But I think the growth comes from the trust in each other, that we need to be able to have each other's back on the defensive end, and then go down to the offensive end and share the ball, move the ball, and trust that we all can make plays.
"So, I think that when you combine that together, that's the growth that we're talking about."
The Rockets had been on a roll equal to that of the Spurs, winning 12 of 13 games before suffering a surprising overtime loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday. Houston coach Mike D'Antoni has decided to divvy up rest for his regulars down the stretch, with guard Eric Gordon getting the night off in Memphis. As it turned out, the Rockets could have used a bit more offense; their defense betrayed them in their 126-125 loss at FedEx Forum.
"We didn't play with a lot of force for a long time," D'Antoni said. "We just didn't play with force. When you do that against any NBA team, you get beat."
Maintaining a consistent level of engagement defensively and on the glass has been a bugaboo for the Rockets this season. Their ability to intensify their efforts offensively, particularly with guard James Harden serving as the linchpin, can yield bad habits on the other end of the court.
When Houston needed Harden to engineer a comeback from a 19-point deficit on Wednesday, he responded with 28 of his game-high 57 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. His scoring burst coincided with defensive might, providing another snapshot of what the Rockets must do if they long to keep winning.
"If we play that way, the way that we played in the fourth quarter (and) overtime defensively, then we'll be all right," Harden said.
--Field Level Media
Updated March 22, 2019